James Newton Howard created a moody, mysterious and pensively heroic style for Unbreakable, and this together with an abundance of spellbinding themes form one of the most unique and atmospherically intriguing superhero scores around.
Last week, I watched the Eastrail 177 Trilogy in its entirety (that’s Unbreakable, Split and Glass) for the first time. I enjoyed them all, but leaned towards the titular movie as a favourite not just because of Bruce Willis’ particularly capitivating character David Dunn, or even the excellent story and the intriguing questions it posed – what I just could not get out of my head after the movie was (and you’ve probably guessed it) James Newton Howard’s score. It’s unlike any superhero score I’ve heard before, and that’s just one of its many aspects that have me so intrigued. And so, a considerable number of album listens and a bunch of hastily scrawled notes later – here we are.
The score begins with Visions, and it’s here that we are introduced to the main (and well known) Unbreakable theme. Slow, quiet and rather pensive strings alongside a solemn piano start things off, playing the opening notes of the theme in a soft manner before what sounds like vocal-styled electronics then appear, adding considerably to the already dark and quite mysterious musical atmosphere. The strings and piano then play the thematic notes again though this time a little louder and more prominent, with the music then repeating this for a few more seconds before dramatic percussion then joins the background, elevating the theme from quietly ominous to dramatically epic – particularly towards the end.
Quiet, almost mournful strings then open Reflection Of Elijah, with the actual motif for the character then debuting a few seconds later. The nearly four minute piece is pretty sorrowful overall, especially in the final minute or so where the aforementioned character’s theme gets a particularly heartbreaking rendition played through melancholic piano notes. Weightlifting then introduces another of the album’s primary motif’s – David Dunn’s. Intriguingly, the main Unbreakable theme we heard earlier doesn’t seem to be his theme (despite him being the main character) but rather a general motif for the solemnly dark world the film takes place in. Instead, the lighter, slightly pensive and reluctantly heroic set of notes that debut here in Weightlifting are Dunn’s, and in terms of taking the essence of his character and putting it into music – it’s expertly done, particularly with the theme’s later appearances on the album.
In Hieroglyphics the score really settles into its dark and moody musical world, with slow strings and a solemn piano playing the opening notes of the main Unbreakable theme on repeat for almost the entirety of the cue. A smattering of hope then arrives right at the end as strings play a few notes of David Dunn’s theme just as the track closes. Tense, high-pitched strings then form the stylistic centrepiece of Falling Down, calming down only in the cue’s final minute with the mournful piano returning to play Elijah’s now ominously heartfelt motif. The main theme of the score then gets a three minute fleshing out in Unbreakable, a mysterious and rather gloomy piece that re-employs all the thematic instrumentation (vocal-styled electronics and all) from Visions for the motif’s lengthy playthrough. Overall, this track would actually have been the standout cue of the album, had it not been for a certain piece occurring a bit later on – but we’ll get to that.
Slow, gentle strings start off Goodnight, with the first few notes of David Dunn’s theme subtly playing in the background before then becoming bolder and more prominent on light brass as the track later draws to a close. The darkness of earlier cues then starts to seep back in with The Wreck, where sorrowful strings play an excerpt of the main theme before then switching up into rather sinister-sounding territory for a few seconds. Mournful vocals and loud strings then join the fray but only for a short while before the volume is ramped up and a dramatic, hopeful rendition of Dunn’s theme then plays through. Second Date returns to the gentler tone of Goodnight with slow, peaceful instrumentation, and intriguingly using only a few notes from the start of Dunn’s theme sparingly across the cue – alluding to but never fully playing it, almost as if its unsure of itself. The similarly short School Nurse then continues the same gentle tone but adds an edge of mystery to it, utilising additional high-pitched strings.
Low-pitched, creepy brass and almost horror-like strings open Blindsided, with a few notes from David Dunn’s theme cropping up in worrisome form every so often to add to the already ominous tone. Things turn tense towards the end of the piece with rapid bursts of dramatic brass and percussion that then come to a rather loud and imposing climax. The Orange Man then picks up where it leaves off with the low, ominous brass returning at the beginning before hopeful strings begin to play Dunn’s motif, building quietly to start with heroic brass later elevating the theme to its boldest and most grandiose playthrough yet. The main Unbreakable motif then arrives on newly hopeful strings, encouraging the score’s newfound optimism before fading out almost as quickly as it arrived. Soft, peaceful strings and a light piano form the compositional centrepiece of Carrying Audrey, playing Dunn’s theme in a unusually cheerful manner throughout the cue. Standout cue Mr Glass/End Title then closes out the score; a seven minute stylistic setpiece featuring excellent final reprises of both David and Elijah’s motifs as well as the main Unbreakable theme.
Overall, James Newton Howard’s score for Unbreakable is an unusual superhero score, but that’s what makes it so brilliant. The dark, moody atmosphere that features for much of the album expertly captures the tone of the film, and when things do get hopeful (see The Orange Man) those moments are elevated spectacularly as a result. The three themes are excellently crafted, with each being both recognisable and enjoyable on their own while also working perfectly together when the musical need arises. Personally, I can’t get enough of David Dunn’s theme; its a perfect representation of his character, being quiet and rather reluctant yet heroic when it needs to be.
All-in, Unbreakable is a wonderfully minimalist superhero experience, and I genuinely cannot recommend it enough.
Standout Cue: 14. Mr Glass/End Title